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The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing

Friday, 15th June, 2001

I will be eternally grateful that, regardless of any other conflicts caused by the generation gap, my late father was technologically savvy.

Early on in the home computing revolution, when kids were persuading parents that computers had uses other than accounting packages, my dad acquired an Acorn BBC Model B Microcomputer. I played games, learned word processing and even wrote programs myself, though to be fair I would usually type one in from a listings magazine and then alter it to do what I wanted to do. In many ways this is exactly what I still do with JavaScript on my websites today.

If we had the edge on most home computers of the time, certainly we had the edge when five years later the desk in the study housed an Amstrad PC. The power was astonishing and it even had a hard drive to start us on the road away from those easily damaged five and a quarter inch floppy disks. Suddenly I wasn't just able to dabble with the software but with the hardware too. Of course I was soon banned from using such subversive software as PC Tools, but I found ways anyway. I was fascinated by such emerging technology and I learnt plenty.

This all moved to a whole new level when my dad upgraded and I inherited the PC. A computer of my very own! I was joyous. I was still a schoolboy but I had first hand access to real world technology. When I sat basic word processing exams at sixth form college on one of those now antiquated BBC Model Bs, I was working at home with sophisticated desktop publishing.

Onward and upward, I eventually invested myself with work money and financed my own custom PC, once again right at the cutting edge with with a 486dx50 processor, blisteringly fast and with all sorts of accoutrements that made life rosy. I spent a few years upgrading parts and learning the hardware side of the game, and played around plenty with software too.

There's major personal history here. I remember the four day weekend when Dan and I slept a totally of about three hours between us, while trying to get a SCSI card to work. Eventually we realised that it wasn't possible, but not before actually achieving the impossible for about half an hour. I remember the hardware hacking we had to do on my tower case to physically install a new motherboard. I remember the major achievement of uninstalling Stacker from a 200 MB hard drive: it took skill, stamina and incredible determination to see the job through. I also remember the stand of my base unit doubling up as the lid to a fish tank.

When I'd got noticeably obsolete, I leapt forward one last time. Many friends were working with Pentiums but I was still on a 486, albeit one highly souped up. So I jumped a chipset generation again and invested in a 200 MHz Pentium Pro system. The Pro was sixth generation, a whole leaping advance ahead of the mere Pentiums that everyone else had. I also chose a 21" monitor, which still remains one of my best decisions of all time. This system is years old and now years out of date, but it remains my main machine.

It bears very little resemblance to its original state, of course. It's spent much of its time open and coverless, while fix or upgrade takes place. The original hard drive is long gone, currently replaced by five (yes, five) new ones, giving me almost 100 GB of combined storage space. I'll break 160 GB in the next few weeks. It had three dedicated CD ROM drives running in it for a few years, though currently it has none. It's had moments when it was short of internal power connectors and required dubious connections to the internal power supply of another PC next to it just to give power to its drives.

Apologies for all this technological background but please allow me my reminiscences. The end result here is that the whole constant upgrade ethos has long since passed me by; nowadays it's kept alive by the game players whose favourite games drive the hardware industry. I gave up on time-intensive gaming when Quake II came out, which makes me quite a few years behind the current state-of-the-art.

I still upgrade of course, but it's usually along different lines to the masses; my personal computing environment has become far too customised to easily pigeonhole. We now have so much power on our desktops that we can shape our own requirements. Working in the industry that all this home experience trained me well for, I keep up-to-date with some of the current technologies, while woefully out-of-date with many others.

When I opted out of the upgrade rush, it wasn't just because I'd stopped playing games and thus didn't need the upgrades; it was also because I was moving sideways instead. I set up a network hub and plugged in a few PCs, taking me down the home network route. I've gone way beyond that since, juggling domains and shuffling peripherals all over the place. The benefits to me are enormous, but there is a major catch: cabling.

My house has three floors, each wired up to various degrees, currently undergoing a major renovation. The nerve centre is the middle one, home to two servers and the hub, which of course means cables every which way, but cables have to run out as well as around.

One long cable trails across the floor and down the stairs to connect the network to the PC that hosts the cable modem, giving fast internet access to the entire house. Last night, I strung another one through the ceiling to give the laptop at my bedside a permanent home on the network and eventually connect in another hub to manage a workshop on this floor.

I run into cabling problems like this at work but can pass most of the chaos onto a different team; at home, I had to rip up a floorboard and feed a cable through a convenient hole in the ceiling. It's a royal pain and only the cat enjoyed the process, finding new nooks and crannies to hide in. The sooner we can do away with all these cables the better. Luckily there finally seems to be a major solution in sight.

Whether you're a follower of technological trends or not, I'm sure you've heard about the wireless revolution. It's already here in many ways, but it has even more uses waiting in the wings. If you have a mobile or use a TV remote control, then you're part of the wireless revolution. You're communicating in signals but you do so without cables. Soon, I'll be networking PCs together without having to string wires between them. Everything will be wireless and the floorboards can stay where they are. Just like Pinocchio, I'll have no strings to hold me down.

You probably still have relatives that will remember times before widespread phone usage; from nothing to cheap and easy international communication via mobile phone in a single lifetime is something incredible. I'm thirty years old, technically only one generation behind the present, but I'm starting to understand just how much I'm just part of the process. It doesn't stop here, folks; there's much more to come. Here is the key, ladies and gentlemen, the paradigm shift that this whole piece has been leading up to.

I'm making changes myself that ten years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of. For instance I'm about to get my landline disconnected. My mobile phone and my cable internet connection ably serve all my needs and I can't see any reason why I should pay a monthly line rental for a line I don't use. I know companies who won't believe that I don't have a landline, just as the TV licensing authority doesn't believe that I don't have a television. Soon, however, it'll become commonplace.

I remember just how much of an honour it felt to have a computer on my desk. Now I have computers connected together all over my house and all are permanently connected to the brave new world of the internet. My laptop is the most powerful of them all, giving me the opportunity to do whatever I want to do anywhere I choose. I can talk easily and cheaply on the bus ride home to my girlfriend five thousand miles away. I carry in my pocket a computer more powerful than the first PC we had at home. Ten years ago I would have seen all of these as the product of dreamland, but now they're becoming unremarkable.

I believe that in another ten years time, the technological world will have changed so much that I can't even begin to describe it. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that there won't be any obvious cables drifting down my stairs. I have a feeling that my computers may not be particularly obvious either, as they'll have become well and truly integrated with their surroundings. Welcome to the rapidly changing face of computing.

Incidentally, before I get sued, the title of this piece comes from a newsletter of many years standing written by Jeff Harrow, a senior face at Digital, now Compaq. He writes about exactly this sort of thing: the way in which society in general experiences and deals with the applications that technological advance makes possible. His title applies to this piece so well that I shamelessly borrowed it: please visit him in return and you'll end up as fascinated with his writings as I have been.

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